Ria Café in West Roxbury is redefining family business. The charming gelato café was built with family love and it caters to families looking to create new memories. For owner Pamela Bardhi, it’s a place to strengthen local families by giving back. At Ria Café, family—in all its permutations—comes first.
With Ria Café and her bustling business ventures, Bardhi is living the dream her parents came to this country in search of. “What inspired me to open Ria was my journey to the United States. I came here when I was five-years-old with my parents. We came with nothing and built our way up,” she says. Bardhi’s parents, who immigrated from Albania, opened West Napoli Café—the family restaurant—with a loan from a friend. And Bardhi knew that one day she would start a business of her own.
It’s no accident that Ria Café in West Roxbury is right next door to her parents’ restaurant, where she started helping out as a child. “I always want to remember my roots in small business, I started my way in a small business,” Bardhi says, adding that the pressure of being next to her parents is there, but so is the reward. “It feels amazing. I feel very proud to be next to my parents—it symbolizes where we came from. It’s a thank you and an emblem.”
But Bardhi’s “small” business didn’t stay small. She expanded her entrepreneurial reach to include real estate development, with a redevelopment group focused on residential, single, and multifamily homes, with a special focus in West Roxbury. In many ways, this is also a family business—rebuilding and modernizing houses for eager families looking for a new place to call home. “It’s been one of the most rewarding things, to bring a place back to life and have a family come in and fall in love with it,” says Bardhi.
Ria Café and real estate are only a small part of Bardhi’s legacy. Speaking of her residential redevelopment efforts, she emphasizes the impact that great homes and families can have on their surroundings. “It helps the businesses around, [and] helps the neighborhood.”
Being a small business owner, even for a dynamo like Bardhi, comes with a particular set of challenges, especially when launching a brick-and-mortar business. “It’s a double-edged sword. Retail is a tough space because you need walking traffic, so there are a lot of barriers. You have to build your brand and create walk-in traffic, and get people to the shop,” says Bardhi. Being a woman business owner has additional barriers. On average, women receive less funding than men, and only 15 percent of women entrepreneurs are able to raise more than $100,000 to start their business, compared to 28 percent of men. Not only that, but women are more likely to put in a “second shift” at night, working after work. Bardhi is in the good company of more than 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States, which generate $1.7 trillion in revenue.
Eastern Bank was a natural partner for Bardhi and her entrepreneurial streak. “I remember when they opened a branch in West Roxbury just down the street from me. Their customer service was unbelievable, you could talk to them about anything. They believed in me from the very beginning,” she says. “Before real estate, I only had my store, and they pulled all the things together to help me, and they gave me my first business loan, and that was the spark plug…Eastern Back gives back, and they’re fully dedicated to giving back.”
In addition to her business, Bardhi also finds the time to give back to West Roxbury by serving on multiple boards with a special focus on community and business development. More than that, she talks to young, aspiring entrepreneurs, empowering them with advice. “I was given so much encouragement, I want to be able to give back as much,” she says.
What’s next? Bardhi is eager to find out. “If I can get up every day and help somebody achieve a goal, that’s success. Business is one thing, relationships are forever. Every day I think there’s something new to learn.”
Visit Ria Café at 5 Bellevue Street in West Roxbury.